In the past weeks, Beirut has been brimming with news and rumors of what is expected to be the largest work of aerial-view graffiti in the world.
The work hopes to be listed as a Guinness world record. But who is the graffiti duo behind this larger-than-life project, and what is their purpose?
Fleeing the constant rain of shrapnel in an underground shelter, two twin brothers gave birth to the graffiti duo, dubbed Ashekman.
Omar and Mohamed Qabbani endured the vagaries of the Lebanese Civil War and the brutality of its militias as children. Throughout their daily trips to and from school, their attention was invariably gripped by the pockmarked walls that testified to the destruction of war, emblazoned with the slogans of parties and sects.
Finally, still reeling from the aftermath of the war, the Qabbani brothers set forth into the largely unexplored (at the time) territory of graffiti art. Thus, they began turning the muted walls of the war-torn city into vibrant murals.
Ashekman: Expelling Toxic Social Gases
Armed with nothing but their paint-brushes and spray cans, the two brothers formed Ashekman, and quickly became the talk of the town, with local and international news outlets picking up their story.
Regarding the choice of the name, Omar says that the word “Ashekman”—a play on the word al-shakman, which is the colloquial Lebanese word for exhaust pipe—is “100% Lebanese, and has a sense of spontaneity, in addition to being widely used.”
The choice, nonetheless, has its effective symbolism, as Omar explains: “just as the exhaust pipe expels toxic gases from inside the car, so to do we seek to expel toxic social gases.”
The project was conceived in large part thanks to a family that believed in their talent and embraced them artistically, providing the moral support they needed, and encouraging them to venture forth into this new experience, which would eventually turn into a profession.
In the latest in a series of iconic projects, Ashekman plan on creating the largest work of aerial graffiti in the world.
Armed with nothing but paintbrushes and spray cans, the Qabbani brothers, AKA Ashekman, literally painted the town.
“My mother is a painter who loves nature, and my father loves literature and has been influenced by various thinkers, most prominently Gibran Khalil Gibran. We grew up in the midst of a family that appreciates art and literature,” he notes.
The civil war had a grave influence on the two brothers, particularly as it engrained in their memories the walls of the neighborhood where their family home still stands, while the slogans of the militias are still vivid in their psyches.
Their response was to battle all the negativity left behind by the war, and replace all the militias’ slogans, with more playful, hopeful phrases, such as: “A people who have Grendizer shall never perish”—referring to the popular anime show. Another well-known piece of theirs focuses on the composer Ziad Rahbani’s quote, from his famous play: “What about tomorrow?” Their project art is a project of peaceful expression, in defiance of the prevailing violence.
‘Salam’ From the Skies of Beirut
Being Tauruses by birth, Omar playfully says "stubbornness" is part of their nature, noting that this is what helped them persevere, until they could establish a duo that not only graffitis walls, but also raps.
They even went on to establish a company that is active in various countries, as well as participating in various festivals and activities in Arab and foreign cities and countries, such as Jeddah, Dubai, Kuwait, the UK, Armenia, and Geneva. Their entire venture was self-funded, and based on their individual efforts.
One cannot bring up Ashekman without discussing the Ouzville project, which aims at transforming the impoverished, neglected Beirut suburb of Ouzai along the same lines of Wynwood in Miami or Bushwick in Brooklyn, NY. Ouzai is set to be transformed into a social and touristic hub through inviting the graffiti duo to paint the walls of the area, which is usually the first thing people notice as they drive into the city from Rafik Hariri Airport.
Moreover, Ashekman aims to build the foundations for peace in an artistic manner, standing on the cusp of globalism with the sheer size and ambition of their latest aerial-view project.
“The idea behind the Salam project started two years, when we wanted to create the largest work of graffiti in the world. This gave birth to the idea of painting the word peace on the roofs of over 100 buildings [around Beirut], making it visible from an aerial view,” Omar says.
Omar points out that the project is being undertaken due to the efforts of Curator 19.90 and Ayyad Nasr, who has taken on the responsibility for the logistical aspects of the project, providing full support on the ground. Together, they hope to achieve their dream and earn international fame for the project.
As for the choice of the word, salam (peace), this is attributed to its importance and symbolism. “We are in need of inner peace, and through the project, we would like to focus on the idea that Lebanon is a peaceful country, loves life, contrary to its depictions in the Western world,” Omar says.
When asked if he thinks he would ever stop doing this kind of work, Omar notes: “I won’t stop until my heart stops.”
‘Arabic is Our Primary Preoccupation’
Throughout their career, the duo has made waves in the international graffiti scene, working entirely out of their own pockets, with no external financial support, according to Omar. He recalls how they were able to make it by taking gradual steps toward success through self-funding.
“During our early stages, we would surreptitiously creep on the streets at night, or at 4:00AM to be specific. We would paint on the walls with equipment we bought ourselves, spending all night on our paintings, so that the Lebanese people could wake up the next morning to a beautiful view of walls painted like a news bulletin. They could learn about the developments that were taking place in the country just by looking at these paintings, which usually included political, social, and artistic messages,” Omar notes.
In time, their murals were recognized throughout the city, even earning the appreciation of the Beirut Municipality, which came to support their projects. And so, they were able to take their practice from the clandestine cover of the night to the light of day, and to practice publicly and legally.
Yet, some might question what distinguished Ashekman’s work from other, similar graffiti artists?
Omar says that what distinguishes the two brothers is their use of the Arabic language, which constitutes an essential element of their work. The Arabic language has become their “primary preoccupation”, particularly in light of the new generation’s disregard of their language, considering it to be not as trendy as English or French.
Thus, the Qabbani brothers focused on what is popularly known as Calligraffiti; a subset of graffiti that primarily makes use of calligraphy to create art, specifically Arabic calligraphy. They were the first to kick off this form of art in Lebanon, and as a result of their talent and proficiency, their artwork captured the attention of art departments at several universities. Among these was the American University of Beirut, which invited them to hold workshops with the purpose of training students on how to create calligraffiti.
Omar and Mohamed Qabbani decided to use their art to commemorate celebrated late artists and celebrities in Lebanon, in their own unique way.
Walking through the streets of Beirut, in particular the trendy Achrafieh district, a large painting of the late singer/actor Sabah looms over passers-by, meeting them with her characteristic wide smile, and channeling her joie de vivre into the painted phrase, which translates to: “I would like to live a 100 years, so they can continue calling me Al-Sabooha [an affectionate nickname, "sunshine", used by fans].”
It took a long time for the duo to select the right color scheme and location for the mural, through which they hoped to do justice to a woman who was known for her positivity and spontaneity. It took three days of continuous work to complete the painting.
Ashekman honored the late singer/composer Wadea El-Safi, a week after his death, with a painting that took five hours of continuous work to complete. The duo inscribed the painting, which exists in the Tabaris area of Beirut, with a phrase that translates to both “Safi is gone” and “pure gold”, in a reference to his “golden voice”.
In the context of celebrating Lebanon’s most cherished cultural figures, last week, Ashekman decorated the Beirut Corniche with a large mural of the iconic Lebanese singer Fayrouz.
The painting is 14 meters high, and eight meters wide, and took a total of 20 hours to complete.